Sick Building Syndrome

  • Leave and Absence
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

In this guide, we'll discuss sick building syndrome, its cause and symptoms, as well as how to improve indoor air quality in your workplace.

You should take care of your employees' health at work. This means providing an environment with adequate air quality, as well as ensuring you clean and maintain your workplace often. Otherwise, your staff could develop sick building syndrome.

Sick building syndrome can cause significant health effects in your employees. And failure to prevent its negative health impacts can lead to severe consequences, such as facing claims to an employment tribunal, financial loss, and reputational damage.

In this guide, we'll discuss sick building syndrome, its cause and symptoms, as well as how to improve indoor air quality in your workplace.

What is sick building syndrome?

Sick building syndrome comprises a set of symptoms individuals develop in certain indoor environments, such as office buildings. It's typically the result of poor indoor air quality but its exact cause is unknown.

It can be difficult to diagnose sick building syndrome, as its impact varies. Many might also misinterpret acute symptoms for another condition, such as the common cold.

What causes sick building syndrome?

As mentioned, poor indoor air quality is the main cause of sick building syndrome. But other risk factors can also be the root of the problem. These include:

  • Poor ventilation and poor air conditioning systems (also known as HVAC systems).
  • Volatile organic compounds, e.g. environmental tobacco smoke.
  • Outdoor contaminants, e.g. motor vehicle exhaust or plumbing vents.
  • Biological contaminants, e.g. water-stained ceiling tiles, fungal spores and mould.
  • Chemical contaminants, e.g. carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
  • Building materials, e.g. if the building fabric is not made up of natural materials.
  • Indoor environment, e.g. if the office machinery blocks any entries for airflow.
  • Psychological factors, e.g. poor interpersonal relationships or stress at work.

In most instances, sick building syndrome symptoms will be relieved soon after occupants leave the particular building. But in some cases, individuals might experience long-term health effects.

Who is at risk of sick building syndrome?

Office workers are typically at risk of developing sick building syndrome. Mainly because they work long-term in a particular building where symptoms are prevalent. However, sick building syndrome will likely also affect:

  • Building managers.
  • Building owners.
  • Building designers.
  • Other building occupants.

What are the legal requirements regarding sick building syndrome?

There are no legal requirements regarding sick building syndrome specifically. However, as an employer you have a legal duty to care for your staff's Health & Safety.

This is according to The Workplace Health, Safety, and Welfare Regulations 1992, which also states employers must conduct regular maintenance checks of their ventilation systems.

What are the sick building syndrome symptoms?

As mentioned, there are various symptoms of sick building syndrome, but some are more common than others. Symptoms might include:

  • Headaches and dizziness.
  • Nausea and fatigue.
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms.
  • Chest tightness or asthma attacks.
  • Throat irritation (could also be the result of mucous membrane irritation).
  • Skin symptoms (such as eczema).

Sick building symptoms tend to be more common amongst those occupying air-conditioned buildings, compared with those in naturally ventilated buildings.

What is the difference between building-related illness and sick building syndrome?

The difference between building-related illnesses (BRI) and sick building syndrome is that the latter's cause is unknown. Whereas, BRIs are typically colds or infectious diseases - that are the direct result of being in certain individual buildings.

Examples of building-related disease include:

  • Occupational asthma.
  • Metal fume fever.
  • Allergic reactions.

Whilst both differ, they can result in serious consequences for your workplace and employees.

What are the consequences of sick building syndrome at work?

There are several consequences of employees developing sick building syndrome at work. These include:


One consequence of sick building syndrome at work is high rates of absenteeism. This occurs when employees are habitually absent from work, and usually without good reason. But if sick building syndrome is present in your workplace, it might discourage your staff from attending.

For example, sick building syndrome will probably increase rates of absenteeism in your workplace. Because staff won't want to attend a place that's making them sick.

Low employee engagement

If several of your employees are getting sick because of your workplace, they'll likely dread spending time there. They might withdraw from your culture and even their own work activity. Consequently, this can result in lower levels of employee engagement.

Low employee engagement can have a negative impact on your business. Not only can it decrease workplace productivity, but it can also result in a poor workplace culture that lacks morale.

High staff turnover

Another consequence of sick building syndrome in the workplace is that it could result in high staff turnover. As mentioned, your duty as an employer is to take care of your staff's Health & Safety. If staff believe you are failing to do this they might look for a role elsewhere.

Other staff may feel encouraged to follow suit as well, if they believe there is a better employment opportunity elsewhere.

How to manage sick building syndrome at work

There are several ways you can manage sick building syndrome at work, as well as ways you can prevent it from happening. These include:

Improve the air ventilation system

Arguably the most important way of managing sick building syndrome is by improving poor ventilation in your workplace. This will ensure that everyone is breathing air that is pure and healthy.

Ways to manage and improve inadequate ventilation include:

  • Maintaining the air temperature in the office: This will ensure a room doesn't get too hot and deplete ventilation rates.
  • Using air purifiers or air filters: These remove harmful particles such as dust from the air.
  • Letting in fresh air from open windows: This will ensure a regular flow of fresh air and ultimately increase ventilation rates.
  • Having air conditioning engineers regularly check the ventilation systems: This will ensure your air conditioning is working and there are no problems.

Encourage screen breaks

You might also want to encourage employees to take a break from their computer screen every hour. This will give their eyes a rest and allow them to refresh.

Many with sick building syndrome will usually experience symptoms within a particular room. So encourage your employees to step out for fresh air on their lunch breaks and grab a healthy lunch.

Conduct health surveillance

Conducting health surveillance is another way to manage sick building syndrome in your business. Health surveillance is any activity that collects information about your employee's health. This ensures no adverse effects at work are impacting their health.

For example, you might ask an occupational health professional to assess your staff every six months. This will ensure they're in good health. And that sick building syndrome isn't having any severe health effects on them during their employment with you.

Implement remote working

You could implement remote working as a way to manage sick building syndrome at work. Remote working allows employees to work from home away from the office - and can provide flexibility for certain staff members. These include parents with childcare responsibilities and carers.

In the case of sick building syndrome, implementing remote working could be beneficial to your business. If employees fear illness when they attend the workplace, allowing them to do remote work could increase the chances of them being engaged and productive. Not to mention, it will decrease their chances of getting ill.

Communicate with the building owners

One way to manage working in sick buildings is to have an ongoing dialogue with the building managers, building owners, and even the building designers (especially if you own the building).

Poor communication with the above might mean you fail to receive updates about the building's maintenance. This could include preventative measures you can take to keep your staff safe. Or even updates about building works. Consequently, your employees may end up getting sicker.

Get expert advice on sick building syndrome from Peninsula

You should take appropriate measures to prevent sick building syndrome at work. This includes checking your indoor air pollution levels regularly, maintaining your air conditioning systems, and monitoring your employees' health.

If you don't uphold the occupational safety of your staff, they could experience negative health effects from sick building syndrome. As a result, you might face claims to an employment tribunal, legal costs, and damage to your business's reputation.

Peninsula offers expert advice on sick building syndrome. Our teams provide 24/7 Health & Safety advice which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our Health & Safety experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with a Health & Safety consultant today.


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